A fight for the middle ground

A South China Morning Post opinion poll shows an impressive degree of support among Hongkongers for a Legislative Council veto of Beijing’s proposed electoral reform package for 2016-17. At the same time, in their famous, irritatingly pragmatic way, the respondents overwhelmingly doubt that the pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign could lead Beijing to change its position. To further blur things, the poll suggests that the majority of voters, especially the uncommitted, might ‘pressure’ rebel lawmakers in some way (at the ballot box in 2016). It also shows a significant if unsurprising gap in opinion along lines of age/education.

This is an unequal struggle. The pro-dems mostly lose whatever happens (their fate following a veto is gloomy at best). The national/city government remains in full control either way. It’s almost a symbolic battle. And it will all come down to public opinion – that middle ground.

Those first two results of the poll are key. They suggest that the United Front’s over-the-top campaign of intimidation, haranguing, astroturfing and general freaking-out has provoked a broad backlash. To get 48% of Hongkongers (alongside 13% undecideds) to agree on an action that is controversial and implicitly bound to fail is no SCMP-HalfOfHKersmean feat. Benny Tai and the other Occupy folk should write to the Liaison Office to thank it for all the help.

To put it another way, if Beijing and its rottweilers had kept their heads down and put political reform in the hands of relatively comforting, familiar local bureaucrats and hangers-on, the pro-dems would now have less public support. If they know what’s good for them, Mainland officials will stop trying to instill fear and leave local counterparts to use time-proven techniques of (relatively) warm-and-cuddly public persuasion to get the pro-dems on the defensive.

One approach will be plain logic…

“Why do [pro-democrats] think the present Chief Executive election by the Election Committee, with its 1,200 members, is more democratic than the universal suffrage election that is on offer?”

Coming from someone less unpopular than CY Leung, this would be hard to answer rationally. The current system is ‘open nomination for ballot’ followed by ‘Beijing-picked winner’. With the winner decided in advance, being on the ballot Albert Ho-style in 2012 is purely ornamental. Under the proposed framework, you get ‘pre-selected ballot’ followed by ‘open universal vote for winner’. By modern international norms, it’s crap; but it’s absurd to claim this method is worse than the status quo. To the extent that the Chinese Communist Party is ceding control in the final step of the selection process, this is an increase in representativeness. Even if just 1%.

But the main struggle will surely be for people’s hearts or at least guts. There needs to be some linkage between the political reform package and governance and livelihood. Which brings us to another quote…

“…all the great promises and words were cancelled for this generation. Beijing cannot countenance any election system that disturbs the oligarchy of tycoons it has consigned the city and its people to.”

So says columnist Peter Guy in the SCMP. This is depressing, and there is plenty of other it’s-time-to-emigrate comment around at the moment. The Communists have indeed put Hong Kong at the disposal of rapacious cartels owned by a handful of families. The tycoons’ inability to restrain themselves from abusing their market dominance has produced Hong Kong’s current crisis, courtesy of inequality, property prices, etc. But this is not set in stone: Beijing’s number-one fear is not a decline in plutocrats’ wealth but a popular opposition movement crossing north over the border.

Which side can best convince the middle ground of the population that its approach to political reform offers the best hope of a better life in material terms?

Occupy Central held a symbolically charged march in black yesterday, which attracted due media attention and a not-bad turnout considering how marched-out everyone must be by now. But where were they a few days ago when Lai Sun Development started trying to eject property owners from an old building by exploiting an even-scummier-than-expected loophole? (Knocking units together to achieve an 80% ownership level.) Where are they when schools and old folks’ homes are threatened with closure due to rent rises that are directly attributable to pro-landlord policies? (Land-use and -disposal rules and the influx of Mainland shoppers.)

I’m not sure how Occupy Central and supporters can link a veto of political reform with practical livelihood issues. But if they don’t, government officials will fill the gap. Tying political reform to modest sweeteners on schools, housing, health or pensions would be easy. Mendacious and slimy, no doubt, but easy – and probably effective in winning over the centre.

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13 Responses to A fight for the middle ground

  1. Flip-Flopper says:

    ” … being on the ballot Albert Ho-style in 2012 is purely ornamental.”

    But at least he got onto the live TV debate, and got lots of column inches in the newspapers right up to the ‘polling’ day.

    [Pity that he was such a tub of lard. But someone (with a personality) in a similar position touting (say) abolition of the MPF, a flat-rate departure tax, luxury goods tax, an end to boondoggle mega-projects, and to ring-fencing the funds that underwrite them would be in a position to at least embarrass if not pressurize the pro-BJ stooges. Under the BJ system, it ain’t gonna happen.]

    Plus, the BJ system will give us a monster who will, as sure as eggs is eggs, claim to have the backing of millions (cf. 689 presently …)

    Oppose. Oppose. Oppose.

  2. gumshoe says:

    My guess about the democracy movement w/r/t the high property prices etc. is that they believe that a more representative government would naturally lead to pushing these issues and the way to get there is with real nomination and suffrage. What I don’t understand, however, is why they don’t include this reasoning along with references to laws and international standards.

  3. Funster says:

    I can’t work out the Pan Democrats either.

    Much as I love Hong Kong, the population would be better served by more pragmatic politicians who are restless in striving to make a better life for them.

    Can is be so hard to corner the PRC Govt by tirelessly pointing out their alliance with rapacious Tycoons who have relentlessly taken over the economy for their own benefit & only crumbs for the rest?

    Time to call their bluff on how important the tycoons are to the PRC. The tail cannot wag the dog for much longer.

  4. Stephen says:

    I think the plain logic is – it doesn’t make any difference. You will get the same lackey, perhaps with a nicer smile (Carrie) but in the end they are all beholden to – Party, Tycoons and Civil Service. A long time ago CH Tung was confused by the word Collusion (as in Government / Tycoon Collusion) which was apparent to all but the Heritage Foundation. Out of retirement he comes to lead a party of Tycoons to Beijing, so I think we can assume he’s still confused and who on earth thought it was a good idea to wheel him out at this juncture?

    At the moment Peter Guy type of “end of days” articles resonate and CY Leung, in league with the CCP perpetuates it. A nice smiling Carrie will make us feel that doomsday isn’t upon us but there will be no change. Lastly due to this political theatre everyone has forgotten a former Chief Secretary along with one of largest of the Tycoon families are currently in court on various corruption related charges – is the timing a coincidence?

  5. Kong Tsung-gan says:

    First of all, the current system is not more democratic than the framework laid down by the NPCSC. The two are equally undemocratic, as both deny voters genuine choice and deny candidates the right to run and be elected, basic norms of international law on universal suffrage. When pan-dems say they’ll veto any proposal based on the NPCSC framework, they are not saying that the current system is more democratic but that such a proposal is simply unacceptable.

    Secondly, acceptance of a proposal based on the NPCSC framework would be catastrophically bad for Hong Kong. In saying otherwise, you are falling into the vat that Beijing is boiling for the city. Beijing’s end game for Hong Kong is complete control long before 2047. it is seeking to achieve this in society through its United Front work, as you’ve pointed out on a number of occasions. It seeks this politically through a formal control of the political process. Up to now, it’s had de facto control, and a law based on the NPCSC framework would formalize this. What’s worse, is that Beijing is calling it ‘universal suffrage’, which it definitely is not. With this legitimization of the illegitimate in the bag, Beijing would be free to do whatever it wanted in the city, plus it would be the end of ‘political reform’ since ‘universal suffrage’ would have already been achieved.

    And even concretely, how does having 1,200 people voting for either Henry Tang or Leung Chun-yin differ substantially from forcing the electorate to choose between the two? Either way, you end up with the same. So where’s the gain? The latter is worse because it conveys upon the process a veneer of legitimacy.

    So you need better arguments that a law based on the NPCSC framework is preferable to the status quo. Part of that would involve examining Beijing’s overall strategy for Hong Kong.

  6. PD says:

    Okay, so you think the proposed chnages are clearly more democratic than the current set-up.

    Even if that were so — which I don’t for a moment concede — there’s still the argument that the changes are merely cosmetic, of infinitesimal scope, proposed with clear cynical intentions. And what about the rotten-borough functional constituencies?

    At this rate, it it’s taken more than 20 years to get this far, we can expect the promises of the Basic Law to be honoured in about 2100.

  7. Scotty Dotty says:

    “To get 48% of Hongkongers (alongside 13% undecideds) to agree on an action that is controversial and implicitly bound to fail is no mean feat.”

    How coincidental: exact same numbers for Scotland’s referendum on Sep 18. The Nationalists are on 48% declared too and there is a job lot of undecideds/too scared to say. Of course theyre going to lose, but my the froth and noise before they do.

  8. LRE says:

    The proposed changes are in outcome, equally undemocratic, and by no means a little better, but in fact a lot worse, because it hangs the epithets “universal suffrage” onto the process.

    Firstly the term “universal suffrage” is manifestly disingenuous when applied here in two ways —

    1) It implies democracy without delivering it at all. qv North Korea, USSR et al.

    2) It implies — and government spokesmen have used this term — “one person, one vote” — which it most certainly is NOT, as 1200 people have more than one vote in the election, and their votes are of far greater importance than the rest of the electorate.

    The only advantages of the proposed changes are — surprise, surprise for Beijing and are neither more democratic or slightly better.

    The thin veneer of democracy gained from getting people to choose between the coke or pepsi flavour of Beijing-approved candidate works in Beijing’s favour because:

    1) It lends respectability and implies a popular mandate to the decisions of a Beijing-appointed leader. Expect draconian article 23 legislation to be railroaded through post 2017, because it is “the will of the majority as shown in the 2017 election”.

    2) It stifles political dissent, by stopping any legitimate, political opposition to Beijing, and giving a platform to marginalise and trivialise said opposition. “Your candidate didn’t have the necessary 50% — because it doesn’t have the backing of a broad cross-section of society”. “The democrats don’t have enough support to field a CE candidate, because they’re a minority view”.

    3) It stifles popular dissent (such as Hemlock here) by seemingly giving ground — “don’t worry, it’s better than before — and it might even become a real democracy next time, honest”. They can no doubt eek out the coke/pepsi challenge bullshit for 29 years, and then do away with the whole thing in 2046, when HK becomes just another city in Guangdong province.

  9. C.Law says:

    The claims you forecast in your penultimate sentence have already started: in the “Letter to HK” programme from which Hemlock quoted CY asked why the pan-dems “who only have 1/3rd of the seats” should be able to scupper the reforms, conveniently neglecting the fact that their votes totalled a majority of those who voted

  10. Knownot says:

    I second Kong Tsung-gan: “it conveys upon the process a veneer of legitimacy.”

    And LRE: “It lends respectability and implies a popular mandate to the decisions of a Beijing-appointed leader.”

    And add that passing Beijing’s proposal would surely demean Legco, turning it into a rubber stamp.

  11. Fanny Law is already floating the idea of giving the next CE more freedom to act without having to seek LegCo approval once he or she is quote “popularly elected”. If the NPCSC proposal is not vetoed, expect a Beijing-selected dictator with a spurious popular mandate free to override all the current checks and balances in the future. However if it does get passed, it will be interesting to see how Hong Kong’s courts deal with the inevitable application for a judicial review on the grounds that the new system complies with neither the “broadly representative” nominating committee requirement nor the Basic Law clause that gives everyone freedom to stand as a candidate.

  12. nulle says:


    you forgot that even if the legal challenge succeed and the Court of Final Appeal would declare the new system neither “broadly representative” nominating committee requirement nor Basic Law clause; the idiots at BJ or pro-BJ could have the override by “reintrepretation” (similar to right to abode laws back in the 2000s)

  13. FOARP says:


    “But at least he got onto the live TV debate, and got lots of column inches in the newspapers right up to the ‘polling’ day.”

    Exactly. Pure self-interest demands a no-vote from the Pro-Dems – to do otherwise would simply cast them into the political wilderness with not only no power, but no voice either. This is the Pro-Dems last opportunity to stay in politics othewise they might as well GTFO – no-one will even hear them.

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